Subcontractors of Guilt
Holocaust Memory and Muslim Belonging in Postwar Germany
Esra Özyürek



German Holocaust Memory and the Redemptive Path toward Democracy

Postwar German national identity is based on atoning for the high crimes of the Holocaust and learning the ethical lessons of empathy, tolerance, and democracy. The Holocaust has not been remembered uniformly throughout Germany, but German civil society (Wustenberg 2017) and the state heavily invested in establishing a shared cultural memory that would unify and define the present and future values of German society (Assmann 2011). Despite its commitment to antinationalism and antiracism, German memory culture failed to include members of society who are not ethnically German. Or, as Michael Rothberg and Yasemin Yıldız argue (2011, 35), the exclusion of racialized groups from the foundational narrative of postwar German society was not a failure but rather a calculated effort: that is, founders and defenders of German memory culture, believing that only an ethnically homogeneous German identity could ensure German responsibility for the Holocaust, regarded racialized groups, such as the Muslim-background Germans who helped to build postwar Germany, as both external and irrelevant to the postwar public German narrative of democratization.1 As a result, Muslim-background Germans could not be included in the postwar German social contract, through which a new and free (West) German society was allowed by the Allies to emerge on condition of having learned the correct lessons from the Holocaust.

This long-lasting perceived irrelevance of nonethnic Germans to Holocaust memory underwent a radical and unexpected change beginning in the 2000s. Since then, Turkish-and Arab-background Germans have been central to the public narrative, but only as the prime obstacles to German national reconciliation with its Nazi past and its embrace of democracy now and into the future. This status as obstacle is shared only to a lesser degree by Germans from the formerly socialist East Germany, who are viewed as having insufficiently acknowledged and atoned for their part in the Nazi crimes (Shoshan 2017). Today, Middle Eastern/Muslim-background Germans are routinely accused of being unable to relate to Holocaust history, incapable of establishing empathy with its Jewish victims (chapter 3), and of importing new forms of antisemitism to a country that is assumed to have dealt with its own antisemitism more or less successfully (chapter 2). In a country where 90 percent of antisemitic crimes are committed by right-wing white Germans, fingers continue to be pointed at the Muslim minority for being the major carriers of antisemitism (Dekel and Özyürek, forthcoming). The federal and local governments as well as NGOs, having embraced this perspective around the turn of the twentieth century, began to organize an assortment of Holocaust education and antisemitism prevention programs designed specifically for Muslim-background immigrants and refugees.

Subcontractors of Guilt explores when, how, and why Middle Eastern/Muslim-background Germans moved from the periphery to the center of Holocaust memory discussions in Germany as potential perpetrators of antisemitic crimes, and what this development means for Holocaust commemoration on the one hand and for the place of immigrants in Germany and in an enlarged Europe on the other. By focusing on the recently formed but already sizable sector of Muslim-only antisemitism and Holocaust education programs, this book explores the paradoxes of postwar German national identity through the prism of Middle Eastern/Muslim-background Germans. Ostensibly these programs aim to ensure that Muslim Germans also finally learn the necessary lessons from the Holocaust and thereby embrace Germany’s most important postwar political values. Providing remedial programs for a population who passes through the national curriculum like all others, however, posits them as less able to “learn the lessons of the Holocaust.” In effect, these programs erase the more than sixty-year-long history of millions of postwar migrants who reconstructed Germany from the early 1960s to today. The logic behind the programs also depicts white Christian-background Germans as having reached their destination of redemption and redemocratization, or at least of having come far enough in terms of dealing with the Holocaust (Wilds 2013) to qualify themselves as judges and educators of others. A unique focus on Muslims in antisemitism prevention, thus, offloads the general German social problem of antisemitism onto the Middle Eastern–background minority and further stigmatizes them as the most unrepentant antisemites who need additional education and disciplining.

Subcontractors of Guilt explores Middle Eastern/Muslim-background responses to this unprecedented call to shoulder the responsibility of the German past from which they have thus far been excluded despite their full participation in building the postwar German society. It follows minority groups and individuals who eagerly take this weight onto their shoulders with a variety of motivations and expectations. In the German language, the word “guilt” (Schuld) also means “debt,” a personal or national liability that can be handed down from generation to generation but also can be widely distributed or even canceled. What are the consequences of distributing the foundational German guilt and the inherited debt of the Holocaust to people who mostly arrived after the crime? What is the nature of this contractual relationship between the parties who exchange guilt and debt? What can non-German-background minorities who arrived after the war gain or lose if there is a new German social contract? And what of the white Christian-background German majority, in whose name the crime was committed but before they were born? Can just anyone, irrespective of their relationship to Germany or the German nation, take in this guilt or pay off this debt? What happens to the guilt or the debt itself once it is spread around or subcontracted?

Emotional Basis of Postwar German Democratization

Whether and under what conditions Germany should be part of the post–World War order has been a topic of intense debate since 1946. The Allies allowed Germany to regain its sovereignty only if it denazified, demilitarized, and divided into two nation-states (see Jarausch 2006; Schissler 2001; Poiger 2000; Fay 2008; Naimark 1995). West Germany was given Marshall Aid on condition that it redemocratized itself. In the new social contract, Germans, and especially West Germans, would no longer be united on the basis of their shared bloodline, as before, but through their civil commitment to a democratic constitution. An important precondition of this postwar social contract was German acceptance that they had committed egregiously immoral actions during the Third Reich and would agree to fundamentally transform themselves and the culture that had created the breeding grounds for Nazism. Hence, the postwar social contract that brought (West) Germans together does not date back to a hypothetical time when Germany was in a Lockian state of nature but to a recent time and place: the chaos at the end of World War II. After a regime that led to ruination based on fantasies of blood-based membership, a new social contract was not initially signed solely among Germans but between Germans and the Allied Forces: Germany could exist on condition of admitting guilt and promising a thorough transformation.

The Allied Forces, and especially the United States, monitored the emotional and cultural expressions of Germans to determine whether they were fulfilling their part of the contract. While doing so, Americans approached National Socialism as an expression of German exceptionalism, locating the sources of fascism in German culture and social psychology and promoting the idea that this culture and psychology could change (chapter 1). The victorious Americans, whose own society was segregated along racial lines, perceived democracy not simply as a matter of elections, legislation, and the workings of the German parliament but as “a type of behavior, a public attitude, and an affective relationship to the state, independent of those other political institutions” (Fay 2008, xiv). Reeducation was “conceptualized largely as a psychological and cultural task” that “demanded a well-tuned sense of public opinion of democratization” (6) to be successful. Sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists came together in the United States under new schemes funded by the Department of War to figure out what had gone wrong with the emotional makeup of German culture and how it could be rehabilitated (Fay 2008). One might argue that the motivating factor behind the upsurge in the social sciences in the US of the 1950s was to understand and transform Germany and, later, other enemy nations.

The occupying Americans vigorously promoted the idea that inculcating certain emotions toward the Jewish victims of National Socialism was crucial for Germany’s reeducation and normalization as “a measure of moral capacity or even a gauge of humanity” (Parkinson 2015, 9). To ensure that West Germans faced what they had done, they were forced to walk through death camps and look at pictures of suffering victims, as well as at posters that read “You are Guilty!” (Jarausch 2006). During these psycho-educational activities, the Americans closely scrutinized the Germans’ emotional expressions. In her study of postwar Germany, Anne Parkinson demonstrates that a lack of emotion, and especially a lack of melancholia and sadness, both of which would be expected to naturally result from intense feelings of guilt, was often viewed as the root of the German problem and the element that made them seem unfit for democracy. According to Parkinson, both Americans and Germans characterized postwar Germany as “suffering from coldness, or Gefühlskälte, and emotional rigidity, or Gefühlsstarke, frozen affect and emotional inability” (Parkinson 2015, 5).

German philosopher Karl Jaspers answered the Allies’ call by associating the postwar condition with the “correct” emotion, mainly guilt, in his short book, The Question of German Guilt (Die Schuldfrage) ([1947] 2001), written in the context of the Nuremberg trials. He argued that acceptance of collective guilt was the only hope for individual and national penance and renewal. In other words, he suggested a new social contract where criminal Germans would be able to create a new German identity and a new sense of social integration (74) on the basis that they admit and share their guilt, and relinquish their pride and arrogance in favor of humility and purification. He suggested that the root of this new affiliation among Germans would no longer be based on blood ties but on a sense of co-responsibility and empathy. Important to the discussion developed later in this book, the empathy to which he drew attention as the basis of the new social community in 1946 did not flow from German to Jewish victim but from German to German, all sharing the burden of bearing guilt.

German scholars exiled in the US, such as Theodor Adorno, also played a key role in formulating the emotional basis of the German postwar social contract. After being expelled from university by the Nazis, Adorno left Germany for Oxford, New York, and Los Angeles. While in exile, Adorno wrote about the German authoritarian personality, antisemitism, propaganda, and how to develop German democracy (Mariotti 2016). Adorno believed that only proper education would foster mature, self-critical, self-aware citizens resistant to authoritarian tendencies (French and Thomas 1999). He advocated a confrontational social-psychological approach toward the Nazi past (Meseth 2012) and critical self-reflection (Cho 2009). West German memory culture and Holocaust education was heavily shaped by Adorno and also motivated by West Germany’s desire to be an equal partner in the Western alliance (Moeller 1996).

At every turn, however, tendencies inspired by Adorno and like-minded thinkers for the “institutionalization of a ritual shame” (Fulbrook 1999) or a “ritualized regret” (Olick 2007) competed with a desire to recognize Germans as victims of the war (Biess 2006; Moeller 2005) and to relativize the crimes of National Socialists (Bartov 1998; Moeller 1996; Niven 2006). In 1978, West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt (1974–82) became the first German leader to visit a synagogue and ask for reconciliation with Jews, while underlining the innocence of today’s Germans (Wolfgram 2011, 66). In the 1980s, conservative German historians stated that it was time to embrace a positive nationalism and accept that Nazi crimes were cruel but comparable to those of other totalitarian regimes, especially the USSR (Kampe 1987). After reunification of the two Germanies in 1990, a memory culture that is unapologetic about German guilt and that conceives of the Holocaust as an unquestionable “negative myth of origin” and “a primal phantasmatic scene of guilt and shame around which German national identifications are organized” (Moses 2001, 94) became official and mainstream. Into the 2000s the Holocaust memory discourse became rigid and highly controlled to such an extent that Dirk Moses (2021) called it catechistic, where comparing it to other crimes became a taboo. As a victim-centered memory discourse established itself, unexpectedly more white Germans began to psychologically identify themselves with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust (Jureit and Schneider 2010).2

In the east, the former German Democratic Republic declared itself the successor to the war’s resistance movement. Many West German and American scholars suggest that this attitude of defining themselves as the good Germans kept East Germans from going down the thorny path of soul-searching about their role during National Socialism (Fox 2001). Other scholars, however, argue that East Germans were better at confronting the National Socialist past. They suggest that the argument about East Germans having ignored the Holocaust is a post-unification West German fabrication (Clark 2018, 606). Jewish American moral philosopher Susan Neiman (2019, 108), for example, notes that despite its much smaller population compared to West Germany, East Germany convicted twice as many Nazis (almost 13,000), actually put them in prison, and executed over one hundred of them, whereas West Germany convicted far fewer (6,500), commuted most imprisonments, and did not execute any. Neiman adds that while the East German state defined the primary victims of the Third Reich as “victims of fascism” and as communists, it overlooked the fact that antisemitism was the driving force of German fascism.

Despite their differences in relating to National Socialism, East and West Germany also promoted similar myths into the 1980s that made ordinary Germans seem like innocent victims of the Nazis (Moeller 2006). Both versions of Holocaust memory discourse held that Germans and Nazis were two separate groups and that the Nazi state had terrorized everyone to the point that resistance was nearly impossible (Wolfgram 2010). As late as 1986, conservative historians from West Germany argued that it was time to view Germany’s past as not distinctly evil and to consider the crimes of Nazism as akin in severity to those of Bolshevism (Kampe 1987). In the late 1980s a so-called “historians debate” took place among German public intellectuals. Conservative historian and philosopher Ernest Nolte contended that the crimes committed under socialism predated and predetermined the Holocaust and hence were essentially “Asiatic” and not German and were comparable to those of the Holocaust (Nolte 1986). Other conservative historians such as Andreas Hillgruber argued that socialism was such a huge threat to Germany that historians need to place more emphasis on the necessity of the German Army to protect their country and population from the Red Army (Hillgruber 1986). At the same time West German philosopher Jürgen Habermas strongly stood against these claims, arguing for the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the German responsibility in it (Habermas [1986] 1993). Helmut Kohl, the conservative chancellor (1982–98) who oversaw German unification, wanted to focus on the positive aspects of German history prior to World War II. He and other conservative politicians perceived Germany as the victim of Holocaust remembrance and representation, especially in the United States (Eder 2016).

The vision of Holocaust memory that saw Germans as the main victims of National Socialism lost the public debate in West Germany in the 1990s. Two important contributions to this process changed the way large numbers of Germans thought about the Holocaust: an exhibit about the active involvement of the Wehrmacht in the Holocaust that debuted in Hamburg in 1995 and toured the country for four years (Wolfgram 2010, 141), and the German-language publication of US scholar Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners in 1996, which debunked the myth that there had been a major difference between ordinary Germans and the Nazis (Eley 2000).

The years that followed the unification of the two Germanies consolidated Holocaust memory as the basis of a unified Germany and, several years later, of an expanded European Union. After unification, Habermas played a crucial role in the official embrace of a victim-centered and hence guilt-based commemoration where Germans were to take full responsibility for the Holocaust as proof of their responsible citizenship. Habermas saw himself as a “product of reeducation” made possible in the Federal Republic (Müller 2000, 104). In so doing, he relied on his professor Theodor Adorno’s legacy in his strong opposition to those who wished to relativize and trivialize the Holocaust. He “translated Adorno’s standpoint on the pedagogical aims of working through history as a model of critical remembrance into a protocol of ideal citizenship” (Ball 2009, 47) in Germany and also in Europe. German political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller points out that the Habermasian effort to turn Holocaust memory into the negative nationalism of a community of fate involves a deep paradox: “According to this view, Auschwitz was willingly recognized as a singular crime—but at the same time this crime was jealously guarded as a unique, almost metaphysical act which, yet again, had made the Germans a ‘special people.’ Also, there was a ‘cunning’ quasi-Hegelian drive inherent in the view that Auschwitz had enabled the Germans ‘to know themselves’ or rather, their mythical essence” (Müller 2000, 77). It is this inherent nationalistic particularism in the Holocaust memory, even when negative, that allowed center-right-wing politicians to shift the narrative from coming to terms with the Holocaust to an expression of subdued national pride.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998–2005) was influential in transforming the idea of confronting the past into a positive attribute of German society. He insisted that Germany could be more positive about its past precisely because it had faced it (Welch and Wittlinger 2011). In a 1999 interview, Schröder declared that the new generation’s willingness to face their past was a source of empowerment that created “an opportunity to represent one’s own interests in a more uninhibited manner” (47). Occurring at the turn of the twenty-first century, Germany’s ability to accept its dark past came increasingly to be seen as the mark of a special kind of moral aptitude, which served to legitimize reunified Germany’s reappearance on the world stage (Markovits 2006). Major post-unification projects, such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which opened in the center of Berlin in 2005, and the establishment of the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future (Stiftung “Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft”) in 2000 to compensate non-German slave workers during the Third Reich, are manifestations of Habermas’s influence on a victim-centered Holocaust and National Socialism memory (Ball 2009, 12) and Schröder’s declaration that a coming to terms with the past had, for the most part, been accomplished. Since German unification, a self-aware, self-critical, and victim-centered approach toward the Holocaust is considered “a core guarantor for the stability of Germany’s liberal-democratic order” (von Bieberstein 2016, 909). Immigrants—that is, those latecomers to the scene of the crime who helped to rebuild war-torn Germany and became active participants in and contributors to the postwar German transformation—were left outside of the postwar German social contract that moved from admittance of collective guilt to collective pride at having come to terms with the past better than any other nation. Even if immigrants could gain German citizenship after 2000, they still could not become part of the emotional social contract of postwar German identity.

Gendered Nature of Postwar Democratization

After the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, not all Allies shared the opinion that German citizens could be easily rehabilitated. The Americans were influential in convincing others that Germans could be denazified and redemocratized if German culture—and in particular, German family relations—could be transformed. The US Department of War worked closely with psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists to craft a narrative that would explain Nazism as a psychocultural problem specific to German culture and traceable to a core origin: German childrearing methods. In 1944, American psychologist Walter Langer submitted a report to the US Office of Strategic Services on Adolf Hitler’s upbringing, which he later published in 1972 as The Mind of Adolf Hitler. Such ideas formed the basis of an approach to democratizing the Germans that by and large ignored contemporaneous social and economic explanations for the rise of National Socialism espoused by historians (Eichengreen 2018; James 1986; Strauman 2019) and reduced it to a matter of psychocultural socialization.

Ashis Nandy (2009) has demonstrated how both Orientalist and colonial discourses imagine others as children who need to be governed and controlled. What was unique in the social science produced around the time of the Allied occupation of Germany was the depiction of German difference as that of a gifted but dangerous boy—and here the emphasis was specifically on young men—who might be convinced via American-style childrearing techniques to change his bad behavior and grow up into a responsible adult (Fay 2008). A 1943 US government report titled How to Treat the Germans (Ludwig 1943) advised careful handling: “One of the leading nations within the framework of our civilization, Germany, has to be handled as a gifted but dangerous boy who must be watched and controlled by strict though well-meaning masters.”3 American occupiers and the social scientists who worked with them saw in Germany the potential for a bright future, leading the delayed and juvenile nation away from its Sonderweg (special path)4 and toward the right path of adulthood and democratization.

In teaching democracy to Germans, Western occupiers approached them as children, and in turn Germans approached Nazis as naughty boys. Nazi criminality came to be seen as a case of juvenile delinquency. In his psychological bestseller Childhood and Society, the German American Jewish émigré Erik Erikson ([1963] 1993) dissects German identity through the heroic legend Hitler recounts of his own rebellion against his brutal father in Mein Kampf. According to Erikson, Hitler was “an adolescent who never gave in,” “a glorified older brother, who took over the prerogatives of the fathers without overidentifying with them” (337). Because Hitler and Nazism had hypnotized Germans with black-and-white thinking, German youth were unable to go through the healthy stages of puberty. Instead, they became stuck in a protracted stage of adolescence and endless rebellion. Hitler’s adolescent rebellion was popular among Germans, Erikson argued, because pre-Nazi German manhood had been wedged between harsh and authoritarian treatment of one’s wife and children at home and submissive acquiescence to other men at work. It is telling that the most important findings published by those American social scientists who worked closely with Germany’s American occupying forces appeared in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Mosby’s Medical Dictionary (Harris, Nagy, and Vardaxis 2014) defines the subdiscipline of orthopsychiatry as “the branch of psychiatry that specializes in correcting incipient and borderline mental and behavioral disorders, especially in children, and in developing preventive techniques to promote mental health and emotional growth and development” (1242).

In this evaluation of the problematic aspects of the German family, fathers were seen as guilty of having led their sons toward authoritarianism. This model was especially potent for redemocratization because it placed the guilt on the older generation and depicted younger Germans as innocent and changeable. Historian Till van Rahden suggests that a psychocultural understanding of democracy was embraced by many Germans, especially in Christian circles, as early as the late 1940s. By the 1950s, notions such as the “democratic family” and “democratic fatherhood” enjoyed wide circulation, proposed as a way out of the Nazi mindset (van Rahden 2011). It was suggested at the time that “only children who were raised to be mature members within [a democratic family] could later be expected to participate responsibly in social and political life” (68). When the occupation of Germany ended in 1955, a strong focus on fatherhood remained, even as fatherhood’s content changed. Numerous publications and films encouraged fathers in their paternal and civic responsibilities, seen as necessary “for the future of the West German family and the nation” (120).

But by the end of the 1960s, a second wave of German democratization and denazification was underway. A new generation had emerged, and the entire family structure came under suspicion. The leaders of the 1968 student movement argued that in capitalistic societies the family was the root of repression, independent of the parents’ wishes for their children and whether or not they were gentle with their children (van Rahden 2011, 109–10), leading to experiments with raising children without families.

With the student movement of 1968, a second German attempt to come to terms with its Nazi past was launched. This time, the focus was on a new generation of rebellious youth (students) who must reject their Nazi fathers. The 1968 movement has been characterized as an “anachronistic rebellion” and “a desperate attempt to correct history retroactively” (Schmidt 2010, 270). Student rebellion against authority aimed to destroy the culture and ideology that had led to the Holocaust. As German journalist Hans Kundnani asserted, a good portion of the ʼ68 generation “spen[t] their entire lives attempting to escape their fathers’ influence and to become the opposite of their fathers—and perhaps in doing so to atone for their fathers’ sins” (Kundnani 2009, 11). Herbert Marcuse, a German Jewish émigré to the United States who came to be considered “the father of the new left,” specifically instructed German youth to rebel against their fathers and to not take on their guilt (Marcuse 1971, 9). A number of ʼ68ers subsequently published novels and memoirs about their struggles with their fathers, a prolific genre called Vaterliteratur (Schneider and Daniel 1984).

While the 1968 movement declared all family structures superfluous, their real enemy was Nazi ideology, which they believed promoted strict paternal authority and sexual repression. Inspired by the radical Austrian Jewish psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who had died a decade earlier, a branch of ʼ68ers led by activist Dieter Kunzelmann believed that to transform German society and break from the remnants of fascism, family arrangements and bourgeois sexual conventions needed to be demolished (Kundnani 2009, 52). Originally published in 1933, Reich (1970) argued in The Mass Psychology of Fascism that the masses had turned to authoritarianism as a result of sexual oppression implemented by their families, in the name of their fathers. “The moral inhibition of the child’s natural sexuality . . . makes the child afraid, shy, fearful of authority, obedient, ‘good,’ and ‘docile’ in the authoritarian sense of the words. It has a crippling effect on man’s rebellious forces. . . . Thus, the family is the authoritarian state in miniature” (30). To break with moral inhibitions and their authoritarian tendencies, Kunzelmann’s Kommune 1 and subsequent German communes held daily collective psychoanalysis sessions, rejected monogamy, and experimented with drugs and sexuality. They believed that if young people could liberate themselves sexually, psychologically, and in relation to their family, they might then be able to resist the remnants of fascism in Germany and in so doing resolve social and political injustices (Herzog 1998).

American historian of German sexuality Dagmar Herzog (1998) argued that the sexually conservative attitudes which the ʼ68ers insisted were the root cause of Nazi ideology were in fact not characteristic of Nazi culture but were rather a product of the Christian ideology that came to dominate postwar German society in the 1950s. Members of the student movement experienced multiple sediments of history simultaneously, one imposed atop the other. The ’68ers aimed to transform their present experience with a past they remembered anachronistically, imagining their parents as sexually oppressed and as having been authoritatively controlled by their own parents. Both the first and second waves of German democratization were characterized by a strong desire to undo the past, coupled with a utopian belief in the potential of youth.

Entry of Middle Eastern/Muslim-Background Germans into Holocaust Memory

Middle Eastern/Muslim-background Germans who were left outside of the Holocaust memory debates as well as the redemptive democratization narrative suddenly found themselves at the center of it as both subjects and objects. This development was facilitated by a number of internal and external developments that, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, had transformed Germany. These included the unification of the two Germanies and the enlargement of Europe; the start of the Second Intifada, which brought mass protests against the Israeli government to the streets of Europe and Germany; the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks in New York and London by Muslim terrorists; the rise of Islamophobia and the rapid shift across the Western world and beyond toward the right end of the political spectrum; and the consolidation of right-wing settler politics in Israel. Emergent discussions within public Holocaust memory discourse about Muslims being the major obstacle to Germany’s postwar recovery can be best understood as entangled within three webs of culturally significant meaning clusters that have been spun in German society since the end of World War II: guilt and responsibility concerning the massive crime of the Holocaust, committed in the name of a nation; democracy conceived not as a precondition but as a personal journey one must take; and the possibility of learning to empathize with past victims.

All three clusters of meaning are organized around a specific understanding of temporality and genealogy that positions contemporary ethnic Germans far along the path that leads from antisemitism to democracy, tolerance, and empathy. In this view, Germans are assumed to have already shouldered responsibility for Germany’s Nazi past, matured personally and politically during this process, and learned to empathize with their former victims. This same understanding positions non-Germans in Germany and around the world at much earlier stages along this path. The complex and interconnected stories of how Germans came to confront and learn from the Holocaust, how ethnonationalism has been central to that confrontation, and how that story is publicly understood today are critical to comprehending the unexpectedly central place that Muslim-background Germans now hold in public Holocaust memory discourse.

To this day immigrants, their children, and grandchildren are commonly called Ausländers, literally, “outlanders,” foreigners. Anthropologist Ruth Mandel (2008) notes that the word means much more: “It implies the unwanted foreigner who does not belong. It means unintegratable outsider, alien, rather than any neutral rendering of the English ‘foreigner’” (80). She argues that the idea of the “non-German” as unchangeable has deep roots in German nationalism and dates back to the Reformation, when the church held to the doctrine of the nonconvertibility of Jews (216). Mandel reveals that remnants of this idea may be seen in the disparity in resources devoted to support the integration of Aussiedlers—ethnic Germans living in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union who migrated to Germany en masse after 1993—versus those earmarked to helping immigrants from elsewhere. Only in January 2000 did German immigration law make it easier for individuals residing long term in Germany and their children to eventually claim German citizenship. The change in law brought new anxieties about who truly belongs in Germany. In that same moment the very group of people who would be called Ausländers or Turks (even when they are not Turkish) were now being called Muslims (Spielhaus 2011; Yıldız 2011). This religious label, which potentially might have made it easier to convert these “others” into the national identity—in the sense that it is more difficult to be a German if you are Turkish but easier if you are defined as Muslim—proved effective in connecting different Muslim groups with each other, such as Turks, Arabs, Afghans, Bosnians, etc., rather than integrating them into German society. Daunting questions remained for Muslim others. What does it take to be accepted as genuine members of German society? How can they prove their devotion and good intentions? How can Muslim-background immigrants make themselves fit for belonging in German society without irritating exclusionist stakeholders? What will make it possible for them to enter the postwar German social contract?

In addition to these long-standing internal processes, an external development helped to propel the Muslim-background minority into national discussions of Holocaust memory—namely, the consolidation of right-wing politics in and around Israel. Although Zionist groups have long likened Palestinians to Nazis and diverse Arab figures, including Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, to Hitler (Ilan 2000), the mobilization of this narrative to an international level occurred in the 2000s. During this period, pro-Israel lobby groups emphasized reframing North African and Middle Eastern Jewish exile as equivalent to Palestinian exile in order to neutralize the Palestinian claims for land and property. Kimberly Arkin (2018) notes how, in 2002, Justice for Jews in Arab Countries was formed in order to lobby for the recognition of 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands who had settled in Israel as compensation for Palestinian losses from 1948 and 1967 in a future peace settlement. In 2006, Justice for Jews in Arab Countries launched a worldwide campaign to register and recognize Arab states’ human rights abuses against and dispossession of Arab Jews. In 2014, Israel observed its first-ever national remembrance of Jewish departure and expulsion from Arab and Iranian lands (984). Central to this teleological narrative was the extension of the Holocaust to North African and Middle Eastern Arab countries and Iran, insisting that Arabs were prepared to kill Jews during the war, and were only prevented from doing so because the war ended before they could carry out their plans. Arkin argues that “in this framework, North African [and Middle Eastern] Jewish experiences are not analogous variants of the Holocaust but part and parcel of its telos, a telos that was fortuitously and highly contingently, stopped prior to its full unfolding” (988).

This teleological narrative that sought, seventy-five years after the Holocaust, to include Arabs and Iranians as perpetrators and Sephardic Jews in North Africa and the Middle East as their victims went hand in hand with Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to place responsibility for the Holocaust on Arabs. In October 2015, at a speech before the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Netanyahu asserted that Hitler had not planned to exterminate German Jews but only to expel them—until, that is, the Mufti of Jerusalem convinced him to commit genocide (Haaretz 2015). Although this assertion was met with strong protests by the German government and Holocaust scholars in Israel and abroad, it set the stage for a new Holocaust narrative that would include Arabs and North African and Middle Eastern Jews. This Israel-specific assertion, made to further the political aims of Netanyahu’s administration and the ruling right-wing populist Likud party, had a strong ripple effect in Germany, making it easier to include Arab-and even Turkish-background immigrants in the German Holocaust memory narrative as past and present perpetrators of violence toward Jews.

These internal and external developments facilitated the initial entry of Muslim-background immigrants into public discussions about German Holocaust memory practices through what I call an “export-import theory of antisemitism” (chapter 2). The theory suggests that German-originated antisemitism was initially exported to the Middle East via German missionaries in the nineteenth century and then by Nazis during the early twentieth century. This ideology during the postwar period was then carried back by Muslim-background immigrants into a Germany that had already overcome its antisemitism problem. Having worked hard to confront and overcome their antisemitism, this theory posits, the defeated Germans were now confronted with the antisemitism they had once exported, brought back into their midst by Middle Eastern immigrants. The theory in essence depicts Muslims as carriers of Germany’s past problems into the present.5 A second rendering of Muslim-background immigrants in Holocaust memory discourse suggests that because their antisemitism was imported, immigrants were incapable of empathizing with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and of learning the necessary lessons from Germany history. Until they atoned for their antisemitism, the theory went, they would remain locked in (Germany’s) shameful past (chapter 3).

Despite public unease around their engagement with the Holocaust, research has revealed the keen participation of Turkish-and other Muslim-background Germans in Holocaust memory discourse, but in a way that deviates from national expectations.6 Instead of performances that symbolically transform German guilt and shame into responsibility and engagement (Dekel 2013), Turkish German artists and activists, until recently, routinely identified with the victims. Turkish German authors such as Emine Sevgi Özdamar (Konuk 2007) and Feridun Zaimoğlu (Margalit 2009), immigrant association leaders (Yurdakul and Bodemann 2006), and ordinary Turkish-background Germans (Georgi 2003; Mandel 2008) have drawn parallels between themselves and the Jews under National Socialism. Leslie Adelson (2000) suggests that this process of building connections involves not a simple equation but a complex of “touching tales” among Turks, Germans, and Jews. Yet the fact that half of the “Turkish” population in Germany prior to World War II was Jewish (Guttstadt 2013) unsettles the neat categories of victim, perpetrator, bystander, and outsider. Recent research by Marc David Baer (2020) shows that Turks, Arabs, and other Muslim groups were already present during the Holocaust in Germany but were later removed from its national memory. Baer argues that Muslim and Jewish Turks already have an insider share in this history, positioned multiply as victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. However, the ways Turkish, Black, and other minority artists engaged with the Holocaust memory in their work did not fit the necessary conditions to be included in the postwar German social contract.

The Muslim minority also entered into the sex-and gender-based aspects of German democratization narrative as a problem about twenty years earlier, starting in the 1980s, when Germany faced a turn toward nationalism after the liberal 1968 movement (Chin 2010). Rita Chin argues that as the New Left’s view of fascism was inextricably bound up with sexual domination and oppression, Turkish gender relations posed a major concern for them (Chin 2007, 170). “Turks, the argument went, threatened to reintroduce reactionary behaviors into a country that had worked tirelessly to transform itself into a modern, firmly democratic society. . . . they potentially undermined West Germany’s hard won emancipation from Nazi ideology, especially in terms of women’s rights, marriage, and gender roles” (170). This view led to a myriad of social projects that aimed to protect and rescue Muslim women.

Public focus directed at Muslim women as victims slowly turned toward Muslim men as perpetrators (Ewing 2008). Even though this trend started to crystallize in the 2000s, it reached a climax following the arrival of mostly male Syrian and other Middle Eastern/Muslim refugees to Germany in the summer of 2015 and led to violence against Muslim men and refugees throughout the country (Frey 2020). In contrast to an earlier focus that promoted social projects aimed to help Muslim men, the later focus on men as perpetrators led to policies that aimed to punish, discipline, and exclude them. The Muslim man, according to Ewing, “is stigmatized in the name of freedom, democracy, and human rights and is abjected as the antithesis of these principles. He is recognized as seeking honor and respect primarily through violence and the oppression of women, means that are incompatible with the ethical subject of a democracy” (Ewing 2008, 4). Yasemin Yıldız argues that the recent focus on the victimized Muslim woman aims toward a transformation in European governmentality in that it facilitates “redefinitions of tolerance and the rejection of multiculturalism; revisions of responsibility for the European past encompassing colonialism and the Holocaust; and revisions to the model of the welfare state” (Yıldız 2011, 72–73).

Subcontracting Genealogical Guilt

If assuming a collective guilt forms the basis of the social contract that brought postwar Germans together, how can this sense of “we” be protected, since contemporary Germans are neither perpetrators of nor bystanders to the Holocaust? Four decades after the liberation of Auschwitz, German chancellor Helmut Kohl uttered the phrase “die Gnade der spaeten Geburt,” the blessing of a late birth, during his 1984 visit to Israel to mark the innocence of Germans born after 1930, who cannot be considered guilty for the crimes of National Socialism because they could not have played a conscious role in it. The phrase has become an important catchphrase in discussions about the nature and extent of guilt and responsibility among succeeding generations of Germans. However, by the 1990s, Holocaust memory scholars and also the German public had an understanding that guilt and trauma did pass on through generations.

The genealogical understanding of Holocaust memory is powerfully revealed in a 2018 graphic novel, Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home, by German American author Nora Klug. The book documents the author’s journey back to Germany after settling abroad in New York for over a decade to figure out the exact nature of her family’s relationship to the National Socialist crimes committed against Jews. For Klug, accepting this “German Original Sin” was a matter of bloodline: “We felt that history was in our blood, shame in our genes” (24). To detect the kind of guilt her genes carried, she felt obligated to trace her family history and find out what her immediate forefathers had done in World War II. As Klug traces the extent of her family’s involvement with the crimes of the Third Reich, her emotions alternate between tension and release. Small bits of information, such as a great-uncle having worked as a driver for a Jewish man or the possibility of him being partly Jewish, are comforting to her (102). She goes to the Karlsruhe City Archive to look at US Army files on her grandfather, measuring his involvement with the Nazi regime and its crimes. Waiting in the archive to learn the outcome was particularly anxiety-producing, insomuch as it would finally reveal whether she had inherited the cancer-like disease of guilt or not: “My grandfather’s name pops up on the screen like an alarming find on an x-ray image. . . . I have to wait to find out if it is malignant or not” (140). As she waits, Klug wants to know what her grandfather did during Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom carried out by paramilitary forces and civilians across Germany. “Was he in another part of the town? Ill at home? In his office? Or where it happened?” (151). The level of her grandfather’s involvement has great consequences for how Klug will feel about herself today.

Klug confronts the criminal involvements of her own family unapologetically. This calm but unforgiving postmortem of her grandparents’ actions makes Klug the kind of postwar postnationalist German that took generations of education and memory activism to achieve. Unlike ethnic Germans, immigrant-background Germans do not have such Nazi stories to discover in their family history. There are no archives they can visit to discover their grandparents’ level of involvement with the crimes of National Socialism. Concomitantly, there is no path forward for them to demonstrate that they, too, are atoning for the crimes their ancestors committed in the name of the German nation. Or is there?

In her influential book The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, Marianne Hirsch (2012) shows that due to strong identification, victim memories are also transferred to future generations to the point where those who were not there to live the event “remember” it all the same. In Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma, Gabriele Schwab demonstrates that the traumatic memories of Holocaust violence are also passed on to the descendants of perpetrators. Schwab argues that for everyone involved, “the damages of violent histories can hibernate in the unconscious, only to be transmitted to the next generation like an undetected disease” (2010, 3). Others insist that by the second generation, both victims and perpetrators inherit the trauma (McGlothlin 2006). Scholars of German history have also suggested that the crimes committed during the Holocaust are so severe that they create a special bond between the offspring of victims and perpetrators, leading to a lasting “negative symbiosis” creating a “communality of opposites” (Diner 1986) among the descendants of victims and perpetrators. All of this research into personal trauma and guilt, passing from parent to child, sits in tension with collective, abstract guilt and shame, leaving those Germans who are neither the descendants of victims nor of perpetrators outside of this generational and thus blood-based (post)memory.

Parallel discussions about the transmission of “guilt” by moving into a country that is in the midst of confronting it, or whether we can talk about “the blessing of an immigrant birth,” have until recently been conspicuously absent. In the 1990s Turkish German author Zafer Şenocak provocatively asked, “Doesn’t immigrating to Germany also mean immigrating to, entering into, the arena of Germany’s recent past?” (Şenocak and Tülay 2000, 6). He wrote novels that brought together victims and perpetrators of the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. The main character of his novel Perilous Kinship is the son of a Turkish general who perpetrated the Armenian Genocide and a German Jewish mother who found refuge in Turkey. It took another decade for these ideas to move from the field of art and literature to political educational projects. However, this migrant travel to the German past did not bring migrant, Jewish, and German backgrounds together as Şenocak imagined in his novels. Few historians showed that Turks and Arabs were already part of the Holocaust narrative, some as Jewish victims, some as enablers of the Nazi regime, and that overall there were varied reactions toward the Nazis (Baer 2013a; Guttstat 2013; Achcar 2010; Boum and Stein 2018). Despite the complicated nature of the Holocaust history, Middle Eastern–background immigrants entered Holocaust history narrative without mixing with German nationals, and found themselves the recipients of parallel stories of implication in relation to the Holocaust.

Muslim-only Holocaust education and antisemitism prevention projects that I have observed teach Turkish and Arab youth about Arabs and Turks who collaborated with or inspired Nazis in their heinous crimes or who, in rare cases, saved Jews in the same way other “righteous” Germans and white Europeans did. This model incorporates Muslim-background Germans into Holocaust memory discourse as a parallel society of perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers. Paradoxically, this narrative serves to first include non-German-background nationals in the German “community of fate” (Schicksalgemeinschaft) by emphasizing that they, too, have a share in Holocaust history, but then immediately excludes them, given that their share is one tainted by its own particular guilt and its own particular community of fate outside of Germany. Because Arabs and Turks have yet to atone for their contribution to the Holocaust, this narrative paints Arab-background, and to some extent Turkish-background, nationals as morally inferior to repentant white Germans.

In 2020, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II, research conducted by the German weekly Die Zeit (Policy Matters 2020; Staas 2020) revealed that more than half (53 percent) of Germans believed that Germans should resolve to end further discussion of the history of National Socialism. Another 56 percent agreed that constant reference to National Socialism prevents Germans from developing a healthy national consciousness that citizens of other countries enjoy, and 68 percent agreed that Germany had dealt with its Nazi past so well that they should serve as a role model for other countries. At the same time, 77 percent agreed that Germans have a responsibility to ensure that National Socialism and the Holocaust are never forgotten. It seems the majority of Germans want to have their cake—not to feel burdened by Holocaust memory—and eat it too—by continuing to commemorate the Holocaust as a special German responsibility.

This book suggests that focusing on Muslim antisemitism offers the German public a release from various tensions: between universalism and particularism; between the desire to embrace the specific German responsibility toward the Holocaust and the desire to feel proud of being German; and between including Middle Eastern/Muslim immigrants of three generations into the fold of German identity and yet keeping them apart. Designed to make good on Germany’s promise to safeguard the memory of National Socialism and the Holocaust, Muslim-only education programs externalize antisemitism onto racialized and migrantized groups who have been living in Germany for generations, thus subcontracting part of the guilt onto them. By doing so it allows white Germans to move on, but not away, from their seventy-five-year-old guilt, to enjoy a more anodyne German nationalism, and to congratulate themselves for their continuous investment in fighting against antisemitism in Germany and around the world.

When migrantized groups and individuals take their first steps into the German social contract by accepting the responsibility of learning from the Holocaust, these latecomers to German society become subcontractors while lacking the privileges of the original contractors. Most importantly, their contractual relationship is not one that safely passes from generation to generation but rather one that is always conditional and precarious. For example, on June 6, 2021, Mathias Middleberg, policy spokesperson for the CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union / Christian Social Union) parliamentary group, called for a change in the naturalization law in Germany.7 He asked that the German Citizenship Act include the following sentence: “Naturalization does not apply if the non-citizen (Auslaender) has committed an anti-Semitic act.” He said, “Anyone who publicly agitates against Jews, questions the existence of the state of Israel or burns the Israeli flag must not become a German citizen.” In addition to the required declaration of loyalty to Germany, he demanded that the law should make explicit that antisemitic acts are incompatible with the basic law’s guarantee of human dignity. Even though the citizenship law, as of this writing, has not incorporated this change, should the change occur, it would place extra demands on immigrants, since German nationals who commit antisemitic acts would not lose their citizenship. It also shows how immigrants’ inclusion into German society is conditional on their taking on the German guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust.

A number of Muslim-background Germans are nevertheless willing to enter into this subcontractual relationship, which they regard as a better option than not entering into it, and which leaves open the possibility of changing the terms of the contract. They talk about Muhammad Amin al-Hussaini, the notorious Mufti of Jerusalem who collaborated with the Nazis and then worked in the pay of the Third Reich. They discuss the rampant antisemitism in Turkey and Iran or the antisemitic propaganda distributed by Hamas.8 Locating antisemitic forebears in their own genealogy gives them an unexpected opportunity to include themselves in the German narrative and moral order. As they publicly and sincerely perform guilt and responsibility, the Muslim minority demand to be properly accepted members of German society. They also use the rare public attention accorded them when they talk about antisemitism to also shed light on other forms of racism rampant in German society. By displaying their empathy for Jewish victims of the Holocaust and also for younger Germans who carry the burden of this past crime on their shoulders, Middle Eastern/Muslim-background Germans aim to cultivate empathy for their own racialization and for the heavy work of taking this genealogically conceptualized guilt upon themselves.

Empathy as a Political Project

Holocaust education programs implemented in 193 countries around the world emphasize building tolerance and empathy as their central goals (Carrier et al. 2015). The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s web page (2019) states that through Holocaust education students learn how “silence and indifference to the suffering of others, or the infringement of civil rights in any society, can—however unintentionally—perpetuate these problems.” Dutch Holocaust educators claim that “of all the educational objectives of Holocaust education, the ability and willingness to empathize with others is perhaps the most valuable. Empathy allows individuals to find the universal within the particular, to respect that which makes people different but to recognize their common humanity” (Boersema and Schimmel 2008, 69). Dutch educators also believe that empathy leads to desirable forms of political action. Rescuers during the Holocaust are seen to be people who “recognized their common humanity with the Jews or another oppressed people,” and from whom “this empathy spurred them to action” (69).

In today’s Germany, of all places, the home of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, a moral emphasis on empathy and good citizenship is the norm. State schools are given the duty to educate generations of Germans morally and politically through teaching the Holocaust (Meseth 2012), stressing “empathy-building, a focus on rescue and resistance and the bystander response, building a knowledge base about the Holocaust, stories of individual experiences, and opportunities to make personal connections” (Jennings 2010, 35). In addition to the goal of learning historical facts, during history lessons about the Nazi era teachers are expected to disseminate moral positions, including identification with victims of the Holocaust and empathy for persecuted minorities (Meseth and Proske 2010).

Throughout this book, I demonstrate that the empathy which these Holocaust education programs for Middle Eastern/Muslim-background Germans attempt to inculcate assumes a certain subject position as a given—namely, that of a past, now-repentant perpetrator who embraces the qualities of a rescuer. Holocaust education was first developed to be delivered to the defeated Germans, whom the victorious Allies suspected were not taking responsibility for their atrocities. Today, Holocaust education throughout Europe is designed first and foremost for people who are descendants of perpetrators, collaborators, or bystanders, not rescuers, outsiders, or victims. The programs help people who stand in ethnic German perpetrator or bystander shoes to step into a different pair—the shoes of their forefathers’ Jewish victims—thereby shifting their subject position from (potential) perpetrator/bystander to (potential) rescuer.

In this sense, in today’s Germany, the concept of empathy has come to denote the highly valued and sociopolitically desirable characteristic of ethnic Germans who are momentarily able to imagine what it might have been like to have been victimized by their parents and grandparents. When they step back into their own contemporary shoes, it is hoped, they will have developed the characteristics of yet another set of shoes: rescuers, who may also have been resisters; that is, those Germans who possessed empathetic qualities from the start. But what of other subject positions and shoes Germans might step out of and back into? What happens when the hoped-for empathizers are not the ethnically German grandchildren of ethnically German perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers? What happens during Holocaust education when non-German empathizers are not thinking from within past German positionalities but from within present non-German ones and do not therefore perceive themselves in relation to past Nazi perpetrators? How can we develop a nuanced understanding of empathy that can account for the many and varied experiences and structurally fixed subject positions empathizers undergo as they confront Holocaust memory?

I attempt to map these various past and present subject positions and how they play out in contemporary Holocaust education in Germany through the prism of empathy, understood as a complex, nuanced, highly situated experience of intersubjective connection. My critique of German Holocaust education, and of the conceptualization of empathy that constitutes it, flips the inquiry: rather than putting the emotional reactions of Muslim-minority Germans to the Holocaust on trial for their inadequacies, I interrogate reigning assumptions of German national belonging that offer a single historical perspective as a moral standard. Building on Husserl’s concept of the intersubjective nature of empathy (chapter 3), we see that it is the previous experiences and positionality of the empathizer and not their moral qualities that shape the character of the empathetic process.

My ethnographic observations on Muslim-background encounters with the Holocaust reveal that the strong identification of German Muslims with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, without assuming they are one and the same with them, is common and forms the basis of a strong empathy. Chapter 3 discusses the difficult tension between the radical empathy Muslim-minority Germans feel with Jewish victims, and the strong negative reactions these emotions generate in Holocaust educators. Because the emotional connections that the Muslim minority in Germany establish with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust will inevitably be different from those established by ethnic Germans, public Holocaust memory discourse in Germany, as well as the emotionally based German social contract, needs to expand to allow for the many and differing identifications of its citizens.

When Muslim-minority German youth identify with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, not only because of the current visibility of their persecution but also due to their racialization, they appear to ethnic Germans to be competing with Jews for victim status, and face accusations of being antisemitic, thus losing their opportunity to be legitimately heard in Germany. When Muslim Germans express fear, they are judged to be lacking in the cognitive skills required to understand how different today’s Germany is from that of the 1930s. When they demand empathy for their own racialization, they are judged as too immature for full participation in German democracy and acceptance into the German social contract. Political legitimacy in postwar German national identity politics derives from adopting the repentant perpetrator position. As anthropologist Sultan Doughan (2022) asserts: “Historical perpetratorship is an inclusive concept in Germany and it includes the figure of the Jew as a sacrificial victim. Once one submits to perpetratorship, it enables and empowers them to act and be recognized as a rightful citizen.” Some Muslim Germans, hence, find the solution in assuming the repentant perpetrator position and the guilt that comes with it in order to enter into the German social contract and claim they are also deserving citizens. This book suggests that before Muslim-background Germans can empathically step into the shoes of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims, they are first asked to step into the shoes of the Nazi perpetrator/bystanders or their grandchildren in order to repent, which is the necessary condition for entering the German social contract. In that sense, in order to legitimately ask to be accepted as a member of German society, Muslim-minority Germans are expected to empathize and sympathize with contemporary white Germans in whose name the Holocaust was committed, and that they too now have to live with this guilt. This kind of empathy, which brings together people who have to live with guilt, is exactly what Karl Jaspers had hoped would define the basis of the new German society.

This book provides an analysis and critique of German postwar national belonging. Its more ambitious aim is to show how racialized groups attempt to make space for themselves in a powerful narrative that excludes them by performing the script of the narrative better than anyone else. It goes against the suggestion that Muslim groups engage with the Holocaust narrative cynically, for the sole purpose of finding a way into the German social contract. My years-long fieldwork shows that scores of Middle East/Muslim-background Germans do relate to the Holocaust passionately, genuinely, and with radical empathy, and that the space for empathic connection and emotional engagement with the victims of the Holocaust is much wider than assumed by the national script. Racialized groups in Germany hold the key for a more inclusive public Holocaust memory discourse that can be organically carried to new Germans, who are new because they are young or new because they recently arrived.


1. As an example of this exclusionary German approach to Holocaust memory discourse, a common homework assignment at school on the topic of World War II asks students to talk with their grandparents about their memories of the war, effectively leaving at least a quarter of today’s German schoolchildren out of this central nation-making narrative (Gün 2010).

2. Among the most extreme examples are a German woman, born in 1946, who claims that she is the reincarnation of a young Jewish man killed by the Nazis (Illig-Mooncie 2014), and Ernst Mueller, who falsely presented himself as a Jew and an Auschwitz survivor (Bodemann 2013).

3. The phrase “gifted child” was later popularized by German psychologist Alice Miller, who refers to children “gifted” with abuse and trauma and has a monocausal analysis of “the roots of violence” and “poisonous pedagogy” (a term she borrowed from Katharana Rutschky’s 1977 book, Schwarze Pedagogik) in For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence [1980] (1983). There, she explains the violence of Hitler and serial killer Jürgen Bartsch, the self-destructive drug addiction of Christiane F. and suppressed suffering of Sylvia Plath, the compliance of “good Germans” with Nazism and German terrorists in the 1960s and 1970s—all through an object relations take on childhood trauma inflicted by “poisonous pedagogy.” While developing her ideas, Miller relied in part on the American psychologist Walter Langer’s The Mind of Adolf Hitler in 1972, based on the 1944 report submitted to the US Office of Strategic Services. The book argues that Hitler’s development as a leader was primarily due to the trauma of his strict and abusive upbringing.

4. For a critique of the Sonderweg theory in German historiography, which contended that Germany took a different path toward capitalism and democracy than the rest of Europe, see Blackbourn and Eley (1984).

5. In a different context, Peter van der Veer (2006) argues that in the Netherlands, the Dutch see Muslims as carrying the past selves the Dutch have long left behind—for example, erstwhile Dutch who adhered to strict morals—into the present. One can extend this discussion to include political morals developed after the Holocaust, which is framed in the Netherlands as tolerance culture.

6. Tiffany Florvil (2001) talks about how Black poets in Germany, such as May Ayim and Aurde Lorder, also engaged with the memory of the Holocaust in the 1990s and established links between antisemitism and anti-Black racism.


8. For a detailed discussion of Muhammad Amin al-Hussaini’s engagement with the Nazis, see Motadel (2014).